Supreme Court to hear gun ban case for misdemeanor domestic assault convictions

The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a case on whether a misdemeanor domestic assault conviction bans one from owning a firearm under federal law. 

The case, United States v. Castleman, involves the plight of James Alvin Castleman of Tennessee who pleaded guilty to one count of domestic assault in 2001.  Specifically he was charged with assault by “intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury” to the mother of his child.

Given the guilty plea, Castleman was no longer allowed to purchase or possess firearms under federal law, supposedly.  Consequently, he had his wife buy guns for him, which he would then illegally sell on the black market to criminals as part of a gun-running scheme.

U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court also agreed to hear seven other cases, including an appeal in a copyright dispute arising from the movie “Raging Bull.”

Federal agents busted Castleman’s operation in 2009, after they found one of his guns at the scene of a homicide.  To build their case against Castleman, the government charged him with “illegal possession of a firearm by a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.”

However, a federal judge threw out the case because the Tennessee assault charge of “intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury” to another did not qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of violence,” as laid out in the federal statute that prohibits one from owning or possessing a firearm.

On its face, that doesn’t make much sense, one could argue, because if Castleman caused bodily harm to the mother of his child, isn’t that a crime a violence?

Well, not necessarily — that is, at least according to the different circuit court rulings.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case because it said that the federal statute was written with more severe violence in mind and that the Tennessee law doesn’t necessarily include “the use or attempted use of physical force,” which is included in the federal law.

“Castleman may have been convicted for causing a minor injury such as a paper cut or a stubbed toe,” the appeals court ruled.

So, now, the Obama administration is hoping the Supreme Court could set the record straight on this issue.  If the high court agrees with the previous rulings in the circuit courts and dismisses the case, the administration fears it will render the federal ban for domestic violence offenders largely inoperative.

The root of the problem appears to be that the laws at the federal and state level do not match.  Obviously, this creates confusion when trying to figure out whether one should be banned from purchasing a firearm.

There is clearly a difference if one is convicted of doing something that leads to a stubbed toe versus being convicted of hitting or slapping a spouse in the face.  The question is whether the courts can figure out a way to sensibly apply the law and keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.

[H/T: ThinkProgress /Bloomberg News]